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Watch out for child obesity - Africa's children aren't just hungry

Wednesday February 10 2016

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Obesity is on the rise in Africa, according to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity.

The number of obese children under 5 years on the continent has doubled in the last 10 years, from around 5 million to 10 million, according to a new report.

I find such a fact almost hilarious. After years of hearing how hungry, war-torn and disease-laden Africa is, an abundance of food, and the wrong food at that, is almost a breath of fresh air.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, another UN body, majority of the 795 million hungry or undernourished people in the world live in developing countries, in Africa, Asia and South America.

In spite of great improvements in the last fifteen years, with the proportion of hungry people falling from 19 per cent to 11 per cent, one in nine people remains undernourished worldwide.

Obesity results in multiple health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, and developing economies lack the resources, and often the determination, to deal with these conditions.

So is Africa hungry and undernourished, or obese? The answer, of course is "it depends".

As the report points out, globalisation and urbanisation are some of the leading causes of obesity.

Globalisation is evident everywhere we look. First we started with the weightless cultural goods that Unesco pointed out many years ago, which we ignored. Who cares about the content of entertainment? We had more pressing matters to deal with such as education, housing and clean water, after all.

Today KFC all the way from Kentucky, America, is proudly in our midst as are many other fast food chains.  Unlike in the US, children of the urban poor here do not suffer from obesity.  It is middle-class children, who are exposed to highly processed, energy-dense, nutritionally-deficient foods presented in glossy, attractive packaging, at pocket-friendly prices.

Children who carry healthy snacks, as such as fruits and traditional foods such as arrowroots and sweet potatoes, are often ridiculed by their peers.

Many parents think it fashionable to pack biscuits, crisps and artificial juices for their children to consume at school, and even those who know better often give in to ‘pester power’ exerted by their children.

The urban environment, where many people live in apartments and children are crammed into minivans to school, has reduced the level of physical activity among children.  Opportunities for physically intensive outdoor recreation are decreasing as public land is illegally developed.

Then there is technology. My four-year-old niece knows and easily finds the all the games in my phone and I suspect many urban children have to make do with similar levels of physical activity

FAO further attests that the world produces enough food to feed the entire world adequately. However, many people lack enough land to grow all the food they need and rely on food redistribution, which in turn requires economic power. We can have bountiful food in the market and on farms that is unaffordable to many people.

The target set at the World Food Summit in 1996 to halve the undernourished people in the world by 2015 will clearly not be met. Yet somehow, Africa has managed to create a new problem, urban obesity, for which, I suppose, we shall set a new reduction target.

 Twitter: @muthonithangwa